Ice climbing is only as hard as you think it is. I learned that the hard way when I found myself climbing my first ice covered mountain and even a gorgeous (albeit treacherous) frozen waterfall! The terrain is ever-changing, which is what makes ice climbing such a challenging activity.
Ice climbing is an inherently difficult sport. Typically taken on by only the most experienced mountaineers. Because of the dynamic situations you will be facing and the high level of risk, ice climbing is also considered one of the most dangerous sports in the world. You will require a high level of fitness to complete a moderate to long ice climbing session.
That is also what makes ice climbing so thrilling. The anxiety you experience when climbing an ice-covered mountain can be exhausting, but it’s all worth it when you get to the top. If you are a beginner, you should start slow and build up stamina with time.
What Makes Ice Climbing Difficult?
Underestimating the dangers that are inherent in this activity can mean the difference between life and death. Just because it gives you an adrenaline rush doesn’t mean you should grab that ice axe and head to the nearest ice covered cliff. Here are just a few issues that you need to consider before taking up that ice axe:
- It can be hard on the body – There is a reason seasoned ice climbers look fit, healthy, and, in some cases, absolutely ripped. Remember, you are hauling yourself as well as your gear, so your body should be strong enough to take that burden all the way to the top. Getting regular exercise that includes squats, pull ups, step ups, overhead press, and deadlifts should help you get in the best shape for ice climbing.
- The surface is not uniform or sturdy – Ice may look smooth, but it is far from being flat or smooth for that matter. Some areas may be easier to stand on, but others can simply collapse from beneath you without warning. Plus, it is always changing under your weight and gets weaker as the temperature rises. Having fellow climbers with you can be a lifesaver.
- Serious injuries are not uncommon – Unlike sport climbing where falls are quite common, falls on ice can result in serious and life threatening injuries. With crampons on your feet and sharp pieces of ice and rock falling around you, climbers have been known to break limbs and get deep lacerations.
- Frostbite is an imminent threat – If you are not bundled up against the cold with appropriate thermal climbing gear, frostbite can build up within minutes. Imagine getting numb fingers and toes when you are climbing up a slippery and icy waterfall.
How Dangerous Is Ice Climbing?
Ice climbing is inherently dangerous in more ways than one, and it does not always have to do with the slippery surface you are climbing. However, with the right training, team, gear, and precautions, you can keep injuries at bay and make this activity more enjoyable and less anxiety inducing.
Falls are not uncommon – Like rock climbing, falling is an imminent risk in ice climbing as well. The only difference is that you have more chances of falling off in the latter than in the former. The irony is that it is the only climbing style where falling is NOT an option. That’s because if you fall, crampons can catch on your legs which can lead to serious and debilitating injuries.
Mitigating Risk While Ice Climbing
The good news is that you can avoid falling if you employ belays as a fixed safety measure. If you use fixed belaying, you need to have a harness complete with a rope attached which will prevent you from falling too far in case you slip off. Most climbers do with a partner who
remains on the ground and keeps the rope steady.
If you are climbing with more than one person, you should use running belays. As the climber in the lead goes up the slope, he or she will put in screws and then climb up using them as a safety check from falling. The one who follows will remove them as they progress and so on. In other words, all of you will be moving together up the slope while looking out for each other.
- Falling debris is common – Ice is constantly changing especially when the weather warms up. As the temperature changes it starts to behave differently. When you are climbing, you can knock off pieces of new ice and send it falling down on the climbers that are following you up. While you cannot prevent pieces of ice falling off as you hack at a icy slope during a climb, you can make sure you are well out of the way as it falls. If you are not the leader, stand around the corner or under an overhang. If impact is unavoidable, your helmet should protect you sufficiently.
- Avalanches can happen without warning – As mentioned before, ice is ever changing and if you are climbing up an icy cliff, chances are you may find yourself at the nasty end of an avalanche. Shifting snow can trigger a snowball effect and you may not even know it is coming unless you know which signs to look out for. If you are swinging your tools for the first time, chances are you will not find yourself in the middle of an avalanche because you may not be high enough to encounter one. Avalanches typically occur above tree lines or on spots that have multi-pitch routes so you can avoid them if you are careful. However, always carry an avalanche beacon and a small shovel with you should you end up being buried underneath one. With experience you will realize which weather conditions can trigger one and how to tell the ice won’t give out on you as you climb.
Ice Climbing vs. Rock Climbing
Just because you are a great rock climber doesn’t mean that you can take on an icy rock face. Here are some ways both differ:
- The climb is different – Climbing rocks is not as slippery as climbing a slick and icy slope. Rocks give you a strong sense of physicality which is different from ice climbing where you have to contend with ropes slick from melting ice and a surface that can change (melt/break off) without warning. You should stake out areas that do not get as much sun exposure to reduce those chances.
- Difference in pace – When you climb a rocky cliff, you have to traverse awkward terrain such as large boulders and tangled vegetation which can take considerable effort. In ice climbing, you have to ensure that you maintain a steady or regular pace as you climb or risk slipping off as the ice shifts beneath you.
- One can cost more than the other – Besides climbing gear, you don’t need to bundle up in layers for rock climbing. All you really need to wear shorts, a t-shirt, a light pack and a helmet. Ice climbing requires way more equipment especially if the weather is not on your side. You will find yourself investing in additional equipment such as crampons, a base layer and down jacket, a head torch, and at least 2 axes.
- Stamina differences – Rock climbers have to be quick and lithe to climb a rocky slope so agility matters more than strength. The activity exercises the forearms as well as the fingers, calves and the upper back. Ice climbing can push every part of your body giving you a complete workout. That’s because the surface you are climbing is harder so your muscles have to work overtime as you climb. This can lead to a defined musculature, improved contours and of course, less fat.
- Holds and protection differences – Unlike rock climbing where you can place holds and protective measures almost anywhere on a rocky surface, you need to apply screws during ice climbing which can take more time and effort. However, the time you take to make sure those are secure can mean the difference between a successful climb and a plummet to the bottom.
- Route changes – The more a route is used during rock climbing, the more slippery and polished it gets which can be treacherous. This is the opposite in ice climbing where the more a route is climbed, the easier it is to pick out and traverse. In other words, the former gives you less traction while the latter gives you more handholds and traction to prevent slips and falls.
Ice climbing can be an extremely rewarding experience but it can also prove deadly if you do not have the proper training. Even if you are proud of your rock climbing skills, that does not mean you can take on a frozen cliff side or waterfall the same way and live to tell the tale. Make sure that you take a seasoned veteran with you during your training and a partner each time.
Related content: My Solo Ascent of Mont Blanc from Les Bettieres
Erick is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast. Growing up in Nairobi Kenya and now calling Glasgow, United Kingdom home. Sipping on homemade spiced swahili tea and enjoying a good book is his idea of bliss.